Here are the random thoughts that run through Calla Delaney's numb brain as she stands tearfully at her mother's burial service, flanked by her father and grandmother:
What if I faint?
What if I throw up?
What if I lose it and start screaming or crying hysterically and they have to carry me away?
Oh, and, What is Kevin doing here?
She can feel him here, even if she can't see him. But he's not over there to the left with his parents and his younger sister Lisa--who happens to be Calla's best-bud-since-kindergarten. Lisa grabbed her hand and squeezed it, hard, as Calla passed by on her way from the limo, numbly following the white coffin toward the gaping black hole waiting to swallow it.
Yes, loyal Lisa is here, crying her heart out in a stylish black dress with spaghetti straps, a wide-brimmed black straw hat, and spectator pumps. Even in mourning, she looks as though she just stepped off a mannequin's platform at Neiman Marcus.
Kevin, Calla senses, is somewhere toward the back of the crowd of mourners, symbolically banished from the front lines now that he and Calla are no longer a couple.
It's been over three months since he dumped her. When he did, Calla was positive that it was the worst thing that would ever happen to her; knew without a doubt that she had reached the rock-bottom depths of agony.
She was wrong.
God, she was so, so wrong.
"And so the soul of Stephanie Delaney is released from the body, and the body shall now be committed to the earth..."
The minister--who is he, anyway?--sways back and forth as he speaks, sweat streaming over his fat red face, an open book in his hands.
Which book? Is it the bible? A prayer book? An all-purpose funeral guide?
Calla wouldn't know. She and her parents don't go to church. It's not something she ever really thought much about, and definitely never with any measure of regret.
Never until now, anyway.
Now, she thinks of Lisa's--and Kevin's--Southern Baptist family. Lisa prays for everything from her grandfather being cured of cancer to David Connor finally asking her out. Neither of those things has happened yet, but Lisa hasn't given up. She just keeps on praying, certain that God will grant her wishes.
All the prayers in the world can't bring Mom back, Calla reminds herself, twisting her mother's emerald bracelet around and around on her wrist.
So in the end, what does it matter? Calla could have gone to church every day of her life, and she'd still be here, standing at her mother's grave in the wilting humidity of Florida in July. Helpless. Angry. Distraught.
I can't take much more of this. If this isn't over soon, I'm going to....
I don't know what. Just lose it.
She closes her eyes, hard, and tears roll freely down her cheeks once again, leaving a hot, stinging trail like toxic rain.
What am I going to do without you?
Calla loves her father, of course...but how can it be just the two of them from here on in? They're rarely, if ever, alone together.
Now that's all they'll ever be.
What will they do? Or eat? Or say?
It would be easier, Calla thinks irrationally, if her grandmother lived closer.
Never mind that Odelia Lauder, with her rotund figure, dyed red curls, purple nail polish and strands of beads, is a classic whack job--according to pragmatic Mom, anyway.
But at least if Odelia were around, things wouldn't be so--
Her grandmother abruptly reaches for Calla's hand and clasps it tightly.
Almost as if she's just read Calla's mind.
Which is interesting considering that she's seen Odelia Lauder exactly twice in the past decade, both brief and awkward encounters at family funerals up north.
Of course, before Mom and Grandma had their final falling out in a highly charged scene Calla dimly recalls from her early childhood, Odelia was a regular fixture in their lives.
She's always lived back in western New York, in Lily Dale, Mom's tiny hometown. Calla has never been there. When Calla grew old enough to ask her mother why, she said it was because of the weather.
"It's always cold and unpredictable and stormy. They get feet and feet of snow."
"Always?" Calla asked dubiously. "What about summer? Why can't we go visit then?"
Her mother never had a satisfactory answer for that question.
Odelia used to visit them in Tampa, though. Calla vaguely remembers sitting on her lap reading stories, stringing clay beads, singing funny little songs. But the memories are surreal, almost as if they happened to somebody else.
Kind of like this, today. The funeral.
If only it were happening to somebody else.
Tears spill past the frames of her sunglasses and trickle down her cheeks, moist and sticky as the air.
It's so hot. Everything is ominously still; the sky oppressive. It's going to storm.
Calla shifts her weight, slips her hand out of her grandmother's to reach into the pocket of her black skirt for a fresh tissue. Her mother's black skirt, actually. This is Mom's suit, one she wears--wore--to her bank job, a well-cut designer crepe in a size six. Not exactly Calla's style, but why would she ever own a black suit in the first place? Unlike Lisa, she's usually in shorts and tee-shirts.
Anyway, it fits perfectly. She and her mother have--had--the same long legs, long waist, slim build.
"You look so much like her, Calla..."
How many times has she heard that phrase in these past forty-eight hours?
Not that she hasn't been hearing it from random people her entire life. Like her mother, she has thick milk-chocolate colored hair with streaks of lighter brown; wide-set hazel eyes that go green or gray, depending on the day; even a faint patch of freckles on the bridge of her smallish--for her face, anyway--nose.
She looks nothing like her father, who has pitch-black hair and blacker eyes.
Sometimes Dad laughs when people ask if she's the mailman's kid. Sometimes he doesn't. Especially when the person who's saying it is a guy who's flirting with Mom.
That makes her think of Kevin. She turns her head, slightly, seeking that familiar sun-streaked mop of hair, those big blue eyes fastened to her from wherever it is that he's standing.
She does see big blue eyes, filled with tears.
But they belong to his sister, and Lisa isn't looking Calla. She's staring, in sorrowful horror, at the coffin and the grave.
Kevin is here, too. Calla can feel him-or somebody--watching her intently. The sensation is as palpable as the rolling rumble of thunder in the distance.
She turns again slightly and scans the crowd. There are a bunch of kids here from Shoreside Day School. Like Tiffany Foxwood, who--on the last day of school back in May-- snickered when Calla tripped over Nick Rodriguez's sprawled legs in the cafeteria, almost sending her chef salad flying.
Nick didn't trip her on purpose. In fact, he said, "Whoa, good save, Delaney."
But Tiffany, notoriously bitchy, snickered. Right, and here she is now, staring blatantly as if taking notes to report back to her coven. Yeah, you should have seen Calla, she was a mess, no makeup whatsoever, her face was all raw and she never stopped crying, not once. Oh, and she was the one who found her mother, you know. And she didn't even check for a pulse. She ran screaming into the street like a raving lunatic, and the old guy next door, the one who's almost deaf, actually heard her and called 911.
The old guy next door is here, too, Mr. Evans, along with a group of elderly neighbors, no strangers to loss themselves at their age. And there are a couple of teachers from Shoreside: Mr. Hayes and Ms. Valvo and Mrs. Durkin. Dozens of Mom's coworkers from the financial industry are here, and a bunch of faculty from the college where Dad is a professor...
Calla turns her head again, this time a little further, still looking for him.
The piercing scrutiny boring into her from behind, somewhere to the right, might just as well be a hand on her shoulder, so strong is the presence. This, she knows on a gut level, is different from the stares of her classmates who came to the funeral home last night, some out of genuine sympathy, others, she knows, out of mere morbid curiosity.
It has to be Kevin. Who else can it be? Who else would be focused solely on Calla?
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust..." The minister is spewing cliches--okay, so maybe they're prayers--seemingly oblivious as the thunder grows closer and lightning slashes the purple-black summer sky, low, beyond the cemetery.
The storm is coming right at them, off the distant Gulf. Calla fights the potent urge to flee--not just the storm, but all of it, the minister, the heat, the coffin, the grave--even as a stronger, more pressing urge takes hold.
She gives in to that one swiftly, swiveling her neck around completely to the right, not caring that it's probably impolite to turn your head at a funeral.
Nope. No Kevin there.
But she immediately spots the person who's been watching her.
To her surprise, it's a total stranger.
The woman, clad in a flowing white dress, is standing apart from the black-clad crowd of mourners. Just a few feet, but enough of a gap to make Calla wonder why she isn't standing with everybody else. She isn't way over there under the cluster of palm trees for the shade, because there's no sun; she isn't there for shelter from the rain, because it has yet to start falling.
She stands in stark isolation, black hair pulled back into a bun, eyes so darkly intense that Calla feels goose bumps rising on her arms as she meets the woman's gaze.
It isn't that her expression is unkind...
More that it's just...odd.
Oddly focused only on Calla, in the midst of Stephanie's bereaved husband and mother, friends and colleagues.
Why is she staring at me?
Who is she?
And why is she wearing white, at a funeral?
A sudden clap of thunder followed by a frighteningly close flash of lightning startles Calla into turning her head away from the strange woman,.
The minister's words grow rushed; the crowd stirs uneasily.
Still unsettled by the stranger's stare, Calla turns to look for the woman again.
The spot beneath the stand of palm trees is empty, as is the grass around it.
A quick scan shows that the woman didn't join the crowd of mourners, and she's not hurrying toward a waiting car to escape the rain.
She's simply gone.
But...how can that be? People don't just disappear into thin air.
She had to be a figment of my imagination in the first place, Calla tells herself uneasily.
What other explanation is there?
* * *
The storm has blown in full-force, drawing the service to a hasty close.
The coffin has been lowered into the waiting vault, now pooled with rainwater.
"Let's go, honey," Odelia says from beneath a black umbrella somebody must have handed her, because she isn't the type to carry one--that would mean planning ahead-- and even if she were, it certainly wouldn't be black.
Electric orange, maybe. Or neon green. Or polka dots.
For a moment, Calla forgets to be grief-stricken.
Then she glances at her father and remembers.
She watches him being tearfully embraced by his only brother, her uncle Scott, who lives in Chicago.
She looks up at the sound of a familiar voice. There he is. Kevin.
Gone are the sun-streaked surfer-boy locks he used to have. His blond hair is stubble-short and he's wearing a dark suit with a white shirt and black tie. She's only seen him dressed up on two occasions, at the prom and at his graduation. But that was over a year ago. He's changed. He looks older. Almost like a man now.
"Hey," he says softly.
She opens her mouth, but can't find her voice.
"Are you okay?"
She just stares mutely at him. Is she okay? Is he freaking kidding her?
"I'm so sorry, about your mom, and...about...everything." He reaches out and wraps his fingers around her upper arm.
She desperately wants to pull away from him, but she can't.
She won't, because his touch is warm, familiar--and right now, nothing else is.
"Is there anything I can do?"
She shakes her head.
"Are you...is it that you can't talk, or that you won't? I mean, to me?"
She clears her throat, manages to say, "It's not you. I'm upset, okay? Obviously. And not about you. Okay?"
She expects him to release his hold on her arm, but he doesn't.
"Calla...look, I still care about you. I said I wanted us to be friends and I meant it."
"No you didn't. Not then."
You only mean it now, because you're feeling guilty.
At last, she finds the strength to pull her arm from his grasp. His hand lingers in the air, making him seem helpless. Less like a man, more like a little boy who doesn't quite know what to do with himself.
He hesitates. "Listen, if you need--" He pauses, and she expects him to say me.
But he doesn't. He says anything.
If you need anything, I'm around.
She shrugs. She wants to tell him that she doesn't need anything. Not from him.
But it would be a lie. And if there's anything her mother taught her, it was never to lie.
Calla watches Kevin walk away, hands in his pocket and head bowed, to join his parents and Lisa. They get into their white Lexus and drive away. Mrs. Wilson is sitting in the back with Lisa, her arms wrapped around her, comforting her.
For a moment, Calla is so insanely jealous that she feels physically sick.
She wants to be Lisa, wrapped in her mother's arms.
No, she doesn't.
She wants to be Calla, wrapped in her own mother's arms.
She blinks away tears, steps closer to her father, and stares at her mother's grave.
A shadow falls over the ground in front of her and she looks up to see a man in sunglasses and a dark suit passing by. His head is bowed in sorrow and she can't tell who he is. Just another person who's mourning Mom. Calla never realized just how many people Stephanie Delaney touched in her life until she saw the crowd here today.
"So let me know if you want her to come stay," Uncle Scott is telling Dad as Calla listens idly, her insides twisting in agony. She still feels sick.
What if I throw up?
She supposes it really doesn't matter now. People have dispersed quickly, running through the rain to their cars.
The cool droplets feel good...
But we shouldn't be hanging around out here with lightening splitting the sky.
Then again, what does it matter? If she's struck by lightening, she'll be with Mom again.
The man passing by the grave raises his dark glasses to his forehead and looks up at the sky. Catching a better glimpse of his face, Calla recognizes him...sort of.
Who is he, exactly?
Oh. He's one of Mom's co-workers or something. Right. She met him when he stopped by the house one day not long ago to give something to Mom, and Calla answered the door.
His name was Todd... Or Tom. Something like that. She watches dully as he walks away toward the thinning line of cars parked at the edge of the cemetery.
Her father, looking as out of place in his dark suit as Calla feels in hers, removes his wire-rimmed glasses to dab away the tears that seem to just keep coming. "I don't know, Scott..." he's saying. "That would be such an imposition and you guys already have a full house..."
"There's always room for one more. She can bunk with the girls and help Susie out around the house. She could really use a hand. And you know how the kids love Calla."
Talk about a lightening bolt...
They're talking discussing her?
No. No way.
No way is Calla moving in with her aunt and uncle and their four kids, all or them under seven years old.
Has her father lost his mind?
Hurt washes over her...
Is he so reluctant to be a single dad that he's shipping her off to another family?
Numb, she opens her mouth to protest, but she can't seem to find her voice.
"What do you think, kiddo?" Uncle Scott asks, turning to Calla as a hard lump swells in her throat. "How would you like to spend the rest of the summer in Chicago?"
Just the rest of the summer?
Just the rest of the summer.
Okay, but still...
"We're going to California in August," she reminds her father.
He's about to start a two-semester sabbatical in the physics department at Shellborne College. At least...that was the plan.
Mom, a total workaholic, had even reluctantly arranged to take a few weeks of saved vacation so that she and Calla could spend the remainder of the summer out west with Dad before Calla began her senior year at Shoreside Day in Tampa. Of course, Mom was torn about going away for so long. She kept asking how her office was going to get along without her. Dad's retort was the same every time: "Well, how am I supposed to get along without you?"
How bittersweet those words are now.
"Calla--" Her father breaks off, looking overwhelmed.
"You rented that place for us near the beach for the month of August," Calla tells him. Then, seeing the look on his face, she adds in a small voice, "Didn't you?"
"I did, yes...when you and your mom were going to come out with me. But without her...it's expensive, Calla. Really expensive. More than we can afford...now."
"Where are we going to stay, then?" She doesn't dare allow herself to consider the larger question: what's going to happen when it's time for me to go back to Tampa and start school?
"You and your dad need to talk," Uncle Scott tells her.
"We just...we have a lot to figure out," Dad says, more to Uncle Scott than to her. "It doesn't have to be today, or even tomorrow..."
"There isn't much time, Jeff. You have to make a decision."
"No, I know. I just can't think straight..."
Calla walks away, her heart pounding. So Dad doesn't want her to go to California with him now? He'd rather send her off to be Aunt Susie's summer slave? The cousins are brats, the house is a crumb-and-cat-fur-filled wreck, and where the heck would Calla "bunk," as her uncle so charmingly put it, in his daughters' tiny, toy-clogged room?
And what about September? What then?
Miserable, she crouches beside her mother's grave as fat raindrops plop into the sandy soil heaped beside it. She reaches blindly for a handful and sprinkles it over the wet white coffin.
"Goodbye, Mommy," she whispers.
At that moment, the loose clasp on the emerald bracelet releases.
Calla gasps, helplessly watching as it falls into the gaping hole, like it's determined to go with its rightful owner.
She and her mother had a fight not long ago about Calla's borrowing the coveted bracelet without asking. Mom said the clasp was loose and she was bound to lose it. Then Kevin broke up with her, and Mom, feeling sorry for her, gave her the bracelet.
"It's yours to keep," she said, hugging Calla. "I know it's just jewelry. It won't heal a broken heart, but it might make you feel better for a couple of minutes."
Now, Calla watches the bracelet land in the invisible depths of the grave.
"Come on, honey." Her father is behind her, tugging her arm. "Get up. Let's go."
"Calla, she isn't in there. Not really. Don't you remember what we talked about when we saw her at the funeral home?"
Yes. Of course she remembers.
She'll never forget the macabre sight of her mother's corpse in the open casket...or the startlingly cold, unyielding feel of her flesh beneath Calla's lips when she kissed her goodbye one last time before they closed the lid.
"You have to let go now, honey," her father says. "Come on."
"I know, but...my bracelet..."
"What?" her father asks, and his voice is choked with grief; his face ravaged by it.
"Never mind," Calla says softly, taking his hand as they walk through the falling rain toward the waiting limo.